I spent five of my formative teenage years living in Tampa, Florida. Although Tampa has typical hot Florida weather and beaches (sort of -- it's the bay), it really is unlike many Florida cities. It has a culture unlike many other Florida cities, except maybe Miami. At least it did back then (that was just a few years ago -- ha!). Tampa had a greater concentration of Cuban population back then, than most other cities in Florida. Ybor City is in the heart of Tampa, and Ybor City is sort of a Cuban city within an American city.
Because of the greater concentration of Cubans, the culture sort of spilled out into the more suburban areas. For example, because many Cuban women worked in school cafeterias, a taste of Cuba was found in the cafeteria food. Yellow rice, black beans and Cuban sandwiches were frequently on the school menu. Like many other cafeteria foods, they were sort of watered down version of the real thing, but the taste was frequently pretty close.
I still have a love for those Cuban foods, and frequently prepare them for my family. One of those treats is the Cuban sandwich. On the outside, the Cuban sandwich looks like a sub sandwich, but it has very specific flavors and textures which make it a Cuban. Often the Cubans at school were nothing more than a cold lunch meat sandwich, but even then the bread was right and the pickle present.
The traditional Cuban is ham, roasted pork, Swiss cheese, and dill pickle slices sandwiched between Cuban bread. But, I recently came across a recipe of sorts (really just directions) in an Everyday Food magazine that I now turn to at least once a week for lunch. It's a Ham Cuban -- same flavors and same textures without the time-consuming and expensive roast pork. While I still enjoy a real Cuban once in a while, the Ham Cubans are a great (and inexpensive) weekday treat. I can tell you it beats the pants off a plain ham sandwich any day.
You can read about the history of the Cuban sandwich here -- read it and then go make some.
loaf French or Italian bread (slightly chewy not soft and airy)*
10 oz. smoked deli ham, sliced thin
4 slices Swiss cheese
dill pickle slices (they can be burger dills if that's all you have)
Cut ends off loaf of bread.
Cut loaf into four chunks.
Slice each piece in half so you have a top and bottom.
Place pickle slices on bottom to cover.
Top with ham and slice of Swiss. Repeat with remaining bread, ham, Swiss and pickles.
Heat a skillet over med. high heat.
When skillet is hot, place two sandwiches on skillet.
Top with another skillet and several heavy cans.
Give it a good squish and cook for about two minutes.
Remove cans and skillet, flip sandwich, and replace skillet and cans.
Cook another two minutes and voilà , Cuban sandwich. Yum!
*My Cuban bread
When I am going to make Cubans for lunch, I make the bread that morning. You don't bake bread? Well, you can certainly pick up a loaf -- just make sure it's not sandwich bread. It should be fairly crusty and not soft and airy -- more dense and chewy. But this bread is easy and I know you can do it. This loaf is a variation on my regular French bread. After forming the loaf I pop it into a cold oven and then turn the oven on. The very brief rising time (while the oven is warming) prevents the bread from getting too airy. You can place a pan of water on the shelf below the bread for a really crunchy crust.
1 pkg instant yeast
1-1/4 cups warm water
1 T. sugar
1 t. salt
3 to 3-1/4 cups flour
Combine water, yeast and sugar.
Add 1 c. flour and salt; mix with dough hook until dough forms (or mix by hand).
Add flour, 1/2 c. at a time, kneading at low speed until a smooth elastic dough forms,
about 5 minutes, in mixer (or knead by hand).
Place in a greased bowl, turning once.
Cover and let rise at least one hour, until doubled.
Punch down and roll out a rectangle 15 inches long.
Roll up from long side and pinch edges to seal.
Place on greased baking sheet.
Place pan in cold oven with a dish of hot water on the bottom shelf.
Heat oven to 400 degrees F and set time for 20 minutes.
When timer goes off, check to see if bread is golden brown.
If it is, remove it from oven and place bread on cooling rack.
If not, let it go a few minutes longer.
Remove from oven and cool on rack.